November 22, 2020 | tourism

World unites to help save Iraq’s archaeological treasures

The bald man was easily hidden on his long journey from Iraq to the UK. Etched on a stone fragment just 13 cm tall, he could cross borders in a backpack without being noticed. But when his image appeared on a British online auction platform in May 2019, he quickly caught the attention of London’s metropolitan police. Suspicious of his provenance, they showed him to experts at the British Museum, who confirmed that he dated back to about 2400BC, part of a rare limestone plaque from a Sumerian temple that had most likely been looted in southern Iraq. The stolen artefact will return to Baghdad in December but in the meantime it will be on display in the British Museum which is separately hosting a virtual exhibition of Iraqi treasures. An important part of human history has disappeared during the unrest of the past three decades “We extend our gratitude to the British Museum staff for their efforts and co-operation with us,” said Mohammad Jaafar Al-Sadr, Iraqi ambassador to the UK, at a handover ceremony in October. The discovery of the Sumerian plaque represents a small success in the fight against the theft of Iraq’s antiquities. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of artefacts are estimated to have been stolen from the country’s museums and archaeological sites during the political unrest of the past three decades, and with them has disappeared an important part of human history. “The origins of writing, law codes and so many major developments in the grand human story” all took place in Iraq, said Roger Matthews, professor of near eastern archaeology at the University of Reading, who has worked on sites in Iraq since the 1980s. Roger Matthews of Reading University Prof Matthews is president of RASHID International, a multinational network of academics, professionals and individuals working to preserve Iraq’s heritage. They, along with other experts, multilateral agencies, governments and institutions around the world, are lending their expertise and resources to help the Iraqi authorities recover and protect whatever they can of the country’s ancient past. The urgency of their work was highlighted in 2015, when Isis militants occupied a swath of Iraq. They produced propaganda videos showing fighters taking sledgehammers to statues and artefacts in the museum of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and bulldozing buildings at Nimrud, capital of the ancient Assyrian empire, allegedly because they were sacrilegious.

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